TransActions: A New Incarnation of this Blog

Last night, a good friend of mine picked me up from the airport, and we ended up sitting in his van outside my house talking about the paradoxes of the most effective routes of effecting social change and justice. As he shared a perspective I’d not considered, and expounded on one I am sad to say I’ve often avoided, I felt a tingle in my solar plexus chakra.

Today, these messages came to me in my morning emails:

In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.
- Dag Hammarskjold
- from a daily spiritual quotation. Upon seeing this, my chakra warmed again.

and - Everett Bogue’s latest blog post. It urges each of us to stop resisting our own power to make some small difference in the world. At first, honestly, the post read as cheesy. But it gathered momentum and in one of its last lines, spoke to me:

"You are able to change everything with one idea, one thought, one moment when you choose to stand up and make a difference in the reality of the entire human race."

By the end, my chakra’s fire burned bright, and I knew I had to follow through. Time to sit down and write.

Since I began this blog, I have been asking myself what my one clear message will be. The “successful” bloggers say that having a specific focus is what makes a blog strong, what gets and keeps a following. This makes sense - consistency keeps people coming back (Lesson #38 from twelve years in the service industry). I started writing with the idea of documenting my minimalist journey and my path to creating an online art business. I still want to do this; I think it will be helpful for others, and for myself as a reference point as I move forward.

However, beginning with my third post, another message has come up, and with it a string of supporting signs, such as those I received this morning. “Speak up,” they say. “Be a warrior,” they say - a warrior bodhisattva, a transgender warrior.

I long ago discarded the idea of being a trans writer. I felt that there were already so many who could tell their stories just as well as I could, if they hadn’t yet. My story, I thought, was nothing special. I have struggled, but not profoundly; I have been blessed with support, been spared violence, hit only minor roadblocks in my medical care. I should leave the storytelling to those who’ve not been so privileged - their voices are hard enough to project, and I do them and the world no favors by making mine another noise to drown them out. I would make my voice through art. Words, though a masterful medium of mine, were not the way to go.

To a degree, I still believe this. My life story is not as compelling as Leslie Feinberg’s, not as inspiring and tragic as Sylvia Rivera’s. In the realm of biography, I have little to share that is truly unique. The journey into one’s right body is well-documented by many talented writers.

The journey that follows, however, is not. Yes, many writers have touched on the struggle of re-socialization that happens post-transition. But few have truly delved into it. This is what I have to offer. Experience and musings on being true to one’s history while living one’s present. It is a delicate balance for which I am continually striving.

What do I mean by this?

"Being true to one’s history" means that we do not discard, dismiss, or diminish our experience before and during our transition; though we may always have felt like our true gender, we did not always live in it. We are men who were socialized as women, women who were socialized as men, genderqueers who were socialized in a binary. We made our transitions to be true to ourselves. Yet so many of us leave our old selves at the door, and never look back, never mention them again - and that is not truth. That is omission. Omission is no better than lying.

"Living one’s present" means that we are living our right gender now, and we should not be hindered from doing so by the fact that we haven’t always been able to. Just as some deny their trans history, others, in guilt, deny their current place in the social construct of gender. They say, “I’m a man, but I’m not part of the male dominance. I’m a man, but I reject my male privilege. I’m a woman, but I’m not affected by the repression of women. I’m a woman, but I still have male privilege.” These ideals - which they are, as in a perfect world, they would be true - are simply not the case. Like it or not, we still live in a hegemonic gender binary, in which those who are perceived as male receive automatic, unearned privileges that are denied to those who are perceived as female. If you are perceived as male, you have male privilege; you are perceived by women and men alike to be part of the dominant male class. Denying this does nothing to change it - it only perpetuates it. Consent by default. Acceptance through ignorance. The same is true for transwomen who ignore the repression they experience post-transition. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Your silence will not protect you.

I can speak of these ideas because I have done them. A few months into my transition, I unexpectedly “went stealth” - meaning, I did not want anyone to know I was trans. This was something that I never thought I would do - I, with the self-designed trans symbol tattooed on my arm, with the “Tranarchy” patch on my army jacket. Out of unforeseen circumstantial necessity, though, I made that choice in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when I suddenly found myself in the unknown and terrifyingly conservative city of Dallas, numbly holding the fragments of my life and unable to conceive of trying to navigate challenges to my gender identity at the same time I was trying to weave those fragments into a new whole. So I hid, for self-preservation. I felt justified in doing so because I needed all the energy I had to mourn and survive the trauma of losing my city and my life as I knew them. I still believe it was the right thing for me at the time. I considered it a temporary state of affairs. I had no idea how long it would take me to remove my shell again.

That was five years ago, almost exactly. Five years ago today, I was holed up in my boyfriend’s cousin’s apartment, trying to get through to FEMA and preparing for my first day of work at a new Starbucks location, fretting over the question of whether to go stealth. Since then, I have moved to Tulsa, where I grew up, and thus forced myself to be a little more out by virtue of the fact that people would know me from before. Two years ago, I moved back to New Orleans, where again, people had known me as a dyke. I thought I was no longer stealth because I no longer actively hid my trans status; if asked, I would divulge. Occasionally, I would divulge of my own volition, like telling someone a secret.

Recently, I began to realize that passive outness was not enough. (See this post.) I felt like a coward standing in frozen silence behind my bar as my coworker laughed about a “shim” with our guests. In that moment, I knew something had to change. I had to change.

Last night, my friend Sebastian said something that resonated with me. I mention his name because the coming quotation deserves citation. He is unabashedly out as a transman. He divulges to his employer as soon as he starts a job. He tells new friends immediately. He has a lack of fear that I admire. He said, “When you tell selected people, like it’s a secret, you give them power with that information. They can use it however they like, and they can use it against you. If you are unapologetically you, transness and all, you deny them that power. They cannot hurt you with your own truth.”

With that, I return to the first quotation: The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action. In my spirituality, social justice and the striving therefor is holy. Equality is holy. Respect is holy.

And if I want this holiness for myself and for my siblings, I must take action.

With that, I welcome you to the new blog: TransActions: Journeys on the Road of a Transgender Warrior-Bodhisattva.

© Steven Williams, 2010

The Sex Which is Not Seen

The truth began with an episode of Nip/Tuck.

My fiancee was watching it when I got home from a slow and irritating shift at the hotel bar where I work. I caught a scene of Christian visiting Matt in the hospital after he was beaten by a gang of angry transsexual women, one of whom he’d beaten when he found out she was pre-op (in a rage he’d redirected from his older girlfriend’s revelation that she was post-op). Christian did not share his rage, but empathized with him for being “fooled.”

I said I was going to go in the other room, having had enough tranny-bashing for one day.

She asked what happened. I tried to play it off. Just hetero guys talking like hetero guys about a “she-male” in the bathroom.

She hugged me and said that if it was any consolation, Alec Baldwin had played the girlfriend’s plastic surgeon and given a wonderfully sympathetic performance.

I told her that it was not, but thank you.

Then the truth came out.

I have transcribed and expounded upon it here.

I am tired of being told that I should be grateful for what I have. Because it’s not enough.

I am tired of seeing people like me portrayed on TV as something other (less) than human, something to be ridiculed, something to be stared at like a circus sideshow, treated atrociously and objectified by every other character (until one, in the end, says something redeeming that is somehow supposed to absolve them and everyone else). I am tired of my harsh critiques of such portrayals being met with responses that I’m overreacting, it wasn’t all bad, at least we’re being shown at all. Bad publicity is better than none, right?


Because every time Dr. Christian Troy refers to a transwoman’s vagina as “something artificial,” every time Brian Griffin projectile vomits for a full 30 seconds after learning his new lady is post-op, it legitimizes those responses in real life. The fact that Dr. Troy uses no explicitly derogatory terms does not make it better. Neither does Quagmire’s 30-second acceptance speech with his dad at the end of the episode. These “baby steps” may represent a glimmer of progress in the social mindset, but they do practically nothing for the average viewer to counterbalance the previous half hour of tranny-bashing or the lifetime of implicit and explicit messages that “otherly” gendered people are not. And they certainly don’t offset a damn thing for those of us on the other side of that “other” who have endured a lifetime of what we just saw on the screen. Those “small victories,” as our well-intentioned allies like to see them, feel like no such thing to us.

It’s not enough.

It’s not enough because the first time I came out to another person was fifteen years ago, and the gut-wrenching fear leading up to that moment is no less today than it was then; the only difference is that I’ve grown used to it. It’s still just as gripping, just as paralyzing, just as primal. The fear today of what might happen if my co-workers find out I was born female is the same fear I felt towards my classmates in seventh grade when I began to realize I liked girls more than boys.

It’s not enough because even now, as one of the privileged transsexual people who is invisible as such, I am afraid of going to the public restroom. I am afraid of going to the hospital. I am afraid of airport security. I am afraid of the police even though I am as law-abiding a citizen as they come, and even more, I am afraid of going to jail. I am afraid of what happens if They find out. Not of what They’ll think — I didn’t make it through 27 years of life and 5 years of medical transition worrying about that — but of what They’ll do. Will They see me fumbling with my prosthetic urinary device and beat me senseless? Will They refuse to treat me, or refer to me in female pronouns, or ask me completely irrelevant questions about my genitalia when it’s my arm that might be broken? Will They detain me for having “fraudulent” identification that states I am male when Their space-age X-ray security reveals what’s not between my legs? Will They arrest me on those same grounds when They run my ID and my birth name, for reasons unknown, appears on Their screen?

It’s not enough because even though, in my daily life, I’ve learned to used my new unearned privilege as a white, (apparently) heterosexual, lower-middle-class male to educate others of this description and advocate for those who experience less privilege, I am utterly unable to do so for myself as a gender minority — and often for gender minorities in general. I don’t join or respond to the conversation. I physically can’t, it seems. My voice catches, my vocabulary disappears, and I find my usual eloquence frozen by deep and unmitigated fear of a sort that I do not allow to perpetuate in any other area of my life. I feel like a coward. I feel guilty for being in a unique position to expand horizons and failing to act on it. But really, what do I say from my position behind the bar as a witness to the server’s 30-second conversation with my patron about the “shim” in the bathroom? It takes my brain so long to shake the shock, anger, and fear that by the time I come up with an intelligent observation about my otherwise liberal coworker’s bigotry, the moment has long passed into sports and politics, and I see no way to broach the subject without an abrupt and awkward turn.

I’m not in the closet. But I’m invisible — an immense privilege for which many of my siblings would give their right arms, I know, but it comes with its own set of curses. I’m wedged into a box labeled “M” that only fits a fraction of my being. I do my best to deconstruct it daily, and in my personal life I succeed; but somehow I remain awkwardly confined when it comes to the impersonal.

Baby steps are better than none. But it’s not enough.

"So do something about it," says my lovely, cisgendered fiancee when I finish my rant.

"Like what?" I say. I know that change is best affected one person at a time. But I feel so inadequate person-to-person.

She gives me the sweetest look of “duh” possible. “Blog,” she says. “Write about it. Pass your message. Art. Make paintings of it. That’s your difference to make.”

And of course, as usual, she’s right.

~S. L. Williams, ©2010

Out in the Club. Mixed media on plywood. ©2007 S. L. Williams/EarthPhoenix Art
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